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Vendors pledge joint support for Cisco's Unified Computing System

Cisco and Red Hat's partnership includes a deal to put RHEL on the Unified Computing System as well as new blade architecture definitions and Linux drivers.

Cisco Systems Inc. used the recent Red Hat Summit to once again push its Unified Computing System vision. The Cisco Unified Computing System all-in-one data center server runs Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Cisco execs at the show also described the close collaboration between Red Hat and Cisco in bringing the so-called Cisco data center server -- which combines data, networking and storage functions in one box -- to market.

In one of two Cisco workshops at the show, Cisco Product Manager Joe Vaccaro said under a Cisco-Red Hat partnership forged last March, Cisco agreed to act as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), selling and supporting its UCS systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) but has worked with Red Hat to define a new blade architecture. The two companies are engineering Linux drivers for the Unified Computing System (UCS) and working on blade certifications on RHEL and performing KVM virtualization benchmark tests, he said.

Steven Seed, a senior systems engineer at Burbank, Calif.-based Walt Disney Animation Studios, said Cisco's new platform is "squeezing as much juice from the processing" as it can, and likes the two vendors' commitment to jointly support the product.

The benefits of UCS
UCS can centrally manage all devices from a single point and its open management framework enables a systems administrator to log in and see all the devices in a particular class, he said.

In addition, UCS abstracts the hardware identity into a service profile, which the UCS manager can then deploy and provision automatically using template settings, and reconfigure for different uses at different times, such as time sharing, Vaccaro said. This arrangement also supports a pay-as-you-go deployment, enabling companies to pay only for the CPUs they use, he said.

UCS also has variable-extended memory, expanding from 12 to 48 dual inline memory modules (DIMMs) of memory per socket, because Cisco found that memory limits were more often a problem than CPU size, Vaccaro added. This enables higher consolidation of physical or virtual workloads while giving administrators a choice of maximizing memory or performance.

In addition, Cisco's consolidated Fibre Channel over Ethernet cabling, which halves the wiring requirements, and its 10-gigabit Ethernet unified fabric, which cuts the number of server adapters and interfaces, saves a lot on hardware, power, cooling and management, he said.

Based on the foundation of consolidation, automation and virtualization of UCS, Cisco can extend this connectivity to private clouds and intercloud computing over the next 10 years, said Paul Bohlman, Cisco's UCS marketing manager.

Easing installation woes
Cisco software engineer Abhijeet Joglekar noted that the UCS also has virtualized adapters (network interface cards) with up to 128 Ethernet and Fibre Channel interfaces, which will ship later this year. RHEL already has the drivers for these adapters to make installation easier, he said.

Disney's Seed agreed. "We have many servers and networks so consolidation, especially Cisco's virtualization of the network, could be very helpful," he said. "With separate interfaces, we could have more hosts using the same network."

As Cisco said at its launch in April 2009, UCS consolidates data, networking and storage functions under central, embedded management. Cisco began shipping UCS units in late July.

"The network becomes a platform, not just the plumbing," Mark Fulgham, Cisco's vice president for Emerging Technologies, reiterated for Red Hat Summit attendees. "Everything talks to everything … and the virtual machine becomes the new atomic unit."

Mixed reaction
Summit attendee reaction to Cisco's pitch was mixed. Michael Rosen, a systems tech for Waukegan, Ill.-based Uline, said that Fulgham had articulated a new idea about how to architect a data center. This may be beneficial for Uline, which as early as next spring may open a new data center.

But Connie Sieh, a systems engineer from Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Ill., wasn't impressed."It's too much in the future," she said.

Bohlman agreed that while Fulgham's speech laid out some long-term visions, some of these ideas are in place now. Cisco began shipping its Fibre Channel over Ethernet combined storage and IP cabling 18 months ago. As soon as this year, the company plans to ship rackmounted UCS systems and virtualized adapters that have up to 128 interfaces per card.

Zeus Kerrvala, a senior vice president of enterprise research at Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group, said that while UCS is essentially a 1.0 version, the product launch gives customers something to experiment with and Cisco benefits from being first to market, he said.

Early adopters might be reluctant to hand over their entire data center to a single vendor, but the alternatives are to wait for other manufacturers or cobble together solutions from multiple companies, he added.

Despite the popularity of virtualization, the technology is lightly adopted because management problems are a major deterrent, Kerrvala said. Whether or not Cisco's new system will spur a breakthrough in virtualization adoption or whether the existing virtualization problems will be a damper on Cisco's unified computing initiative boils down to a debate of which came first, the chicken or the egg; the verdict is still out, he said.

And Gordon Haff, a principal IT adviser at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc., said the design of Cisco's UCS clearly builds on Cisco's networking expertise; the question is whether Cisco is serious enough about adding computer systems to its arsenal to offer the breadth of management features, pricing and other options that IBM and others will surely offer, he said.

For more Red Hat Summit coverage, click here.

Pam Derringer is a contributor to

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